TIME : Risk (Responses : Part 5 of 6)

Sunday, May 27, 2007


Given these idiosyncratic reactions, is it possible to have a rational response to risk?  If we can’t agree on whether something is dangerous or not or, if it is, whether it’s a risk worth taking, how can we come up with policies that keep all of us reasonably safe?  One way to start would to be to look at the numbers.  Anyone can agree that a 1-in-1 million risk is better than 1 in 10, and 1 in 10 is better than 50-50.  But things are almost always more complicated than that, a fact that corporations, politicians and other folks with agendas to push often deftly exploit.  Take the lure of the comforting percentage.  In one study, Slovic found that people were more likely to approve of airline safety-equipment purchases if they were told that it could “potentially save 98% of 150 people” than if they were told it could “potentially save 150 people.”  On its face this reaction makes no sense, since 98% of 150 people is only 147.  But there was something about the specificity of the number that the respondents found appealing.  “Experts tend to use very analytic, mathematical tools to calculate risk,” Slovic says.  “The public tends to go more on their feelings.” 

There’s also the art of the flawed comparison. Officials are fond of reassuring the public that they run a greater risk from, for example, drowning in the bathtub, which kills 320 Americans a year, than from a new peril like mad cow disease, which has so far killed no one in the U.S.  That’s pretty reassuring–and very misleading.  The fact is that anyone over 6 and under 80–which is to say, the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population–faces almost no risk of perishing in the tub.  For most of us, the apples of drowning and the oranges of mad cow disease don’t line up in any useful way.  But such statistical straw men get trotted out all the time…..Two very different probabilities are being conflated into one flawed forecast. “My favorite is the one that says you stand a greater risk from dying while skydiving than you do from some pesticide,” says Susan Egan Keane of the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “Well, I don’t skydive, so my risk is zero.”  Risk figures can be twisted in more disastrous ways too.  Last year’s political best seller, The One Percent Doctrine, by journalist Ron Suskind, pleased or enraged you, depending on how you felt about war in Iraq, but it hit risk analysts where they live.  The title of the book is drawn from a White House determination that if the risk of a terrorist attack in the U.S. was even 1%, it would be treated as if it were a 100% certainty.  Critics of Administration policy argue that that 1% possibility was never properly balanced against the 100% certainty of the tens of thousands of casualties that would accompany a war.  That’s a position that may be easier to take in 2006, with Baghdad in flames and the war grinding on, but it’s still true that a 1% danger that something will happen is the same as a 99% likelihood that it won’t…..

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